Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Box

So much talk about being “outside” the box. So much enthusiasm about “thinking outside” the box. So little practical advice about what to do once you get there…

The Box - my particular box of choice - is a medium sized church in a small Ontario resort town. It’s just beyond the “North of Hwy 7” divide that separates cottage country from the real world of Southern Ontario commerce. Refugees from the Working World of east end Toronto come here to spend their last days among folk who’s families have welcomed these invaders for five generations. 

It’s a United Church. What can I say about the United Church of Canada? I could tell you why I call it the “family business”. (I’m a third generation employee of this organization. You’ll see other families find work in General Motors, Air Canada, The Bell, or Hydro, or the O.P.P.). I remember, as a young man, choosing this box not because I thought it superior to every other (although my prejudices run pretty deep). I chose it primarily because I knew it so well.

I’d stepped away from the church for a decade – and when I was ready to start making a living, making babies, and making a home – it seemed a good box to nest in.

I’ll write about just how big a box the UCC is one day. It trained me and provided a platform for my great need to serve. I am a creator and collaborator of experiments in community. The UCC gave me the freedom to consider all of Toronto my sandbox and I dug into the downtown eastside for the last decade of the century. We created some very cool ministry sandcastles, enjoyed the challenges of a steep learning curve, and daily discovered relationships and partnerships with a diverse and ever-evolvinging network of community-minded folks.  

In a 3,000 square foot woodshop, we made a sawdust church where woodworkers, landscapers, designers, dreamers and artists could find a platform for their own efforts to “make a living” and “make a difference”.

Over those years we found that about 1/3 of our social entrepreneurs failed and disappeared back into the woodwork. About 1/3 of us succeeded in creating sustainable businesses and another 1/3 went and found a job. I was part of this last category.

Life kicked the crap out of me and my family with three successive blows in just a few short years. My life-partner in this home-community-and-work-making adventure uncovered repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse. This healing-crises drove us deeper into God’s care.  We’d given birth to our second child a few years earlier. The blessings that are David came with a steep learning curve about the world of people with disabilities. Not new territory for us – David’s needs drove us deeper into community. Finally, Carol’s life was threatened by colon cancer. This rocked our already thin-stretched world. Family, church, and community circled us in ways that I’ll never forget.

In the pitching storm we sought refuge. We’d always dreamed of living a simple life out in the country. Family holydays often found us searching villages and back roads for that elusive place that called to our imaginations. I’d become a country pastor and a poet. We’d raise our kids with fresh air and rosy cheeks. Carol would share the arts that healed her with the world.

The Bobcaygeon UCC box offered us a refuge. It was inside the 200K circle we’d drawn around Toronto and our health care team. The pulpit had been empty for some time and my enquiries turned up notes of caution about a “troubled” church – along with much enthusiasm about the potential of this unique congregation.

It was a nice little country church full of nice church people. My parents were living in one of the Suburb-by-the-lake retirement communities and they were cautiously optimistic about me taking the tiger by the tail. Surely whatever internal conflicts existed couldn’t be as challenging as the always steep uphill climb of mission-making in the big bad city. I applied into the vacuum.

The Search committee were sore-eyed from looking and I appeared like a dove from heaven (or maybe it was more like a pig in a poke?). They told me they wanted a long-term ministry and I told them I was ready to settle down. I’d just turned forty after all and my wild oats were behind me.

I brought my own share of conflicts into that church with me. The Jesus I found in scripture and the Jesus I found at work in the streets of the city caused me to question the security that my middle class Canadian whitebread church culture provided. How could I respond to the call of Jesus to radically share and grow community among discarded souls from within such a safe box?

My own status and personal security within that box provided me the luxury of critiquing church efforts I esteemed to be “not good enough”. And so the trouble with the church was, in fact, the same trouble I brought with me – a dis-satisfaction with how things are and an obsession with how things might be – if only. 

Whatever conclusions I may come to from a decade of congregational ministry in the Bobcaygeon church, I have to say this. This congregation of Jesus followers gave me and my family a wonderful welcome, consistent support and encouragements, and provided us with the opportunity to create a refuge from the storm.

Professionally I have been challenged to grow and learn continually. While mission work challenged my mind and body, congregational work challenged my heart and soul. The opportunity to spend a decade delving into the depths of the human heart from within this box have changed me.

The task of opening up scripture’s song week by week, year by year within the sanctuary’s four-walled box has been a sacred trust. It has opened up my own heart, mind & soul to God’s wonder. If it has also, on occasion, assisted others in their journey, then how could I be anything but thank full?

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